Art Jetton’s life story is an open book, and his daughter is compiling it.
Jetton, a retired sheriff’s lieutenant who founded the Hall County Dive Team, is in the midst of recovering from a stroke and a devastating fall in February.
The 58-year-old broke his neck and fractured his skull in a fall down 13 steps in his Gainesville home in the early morning hours of Valentine’s Day. He later suffered a stroke that led to paralysis on his left side. He’s been learning how to move, eat and talk again during physically exhausting sessions at Glancy Rehabilitation Center in Duluth.
Jetton is well-known in Hall County, and Jetton’s daughter, 32-year-old Jessica, said she realized just how many people thought highly of her dad when he was in intensive care for two weeks at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Dozens of visitors streamed in to show their support, and hundreds called or wrote, she said.
"It was what kept us all going, because we had many days and nights when we didn’t think he would make it," she said. "So many people have rallied around him. I don’t think he had any idea of the magnitude of the number of people who would call him a friend."
As Jessica Jetton got more and more get-well cards and heard his friends relate stories about her dad, she came up with an idea she hopes will aid on his long road of recovery.
"I’ve been gathering pictures, stories, e-mails, so that my dad can know what a difference he’s made in so many people’s lives," she said. Her plan is to compile the stories into a single book covering his entire life.
"I really think hearing those stories is going to motivate him," she said. "I’ve read a number of them to him, and it’s been really neat to talk with him about those people and how those stories came to be."
Some stories are sweet, like how a teenage Art Jetton befriended the new girl in school who knew no one.
Some are silly, like how rookie deputy Jetton was told to purchase his own sidearm, and came back with a long-barreled, single-action, western-style revolver that had the sheriff silently shaking his head.
That story is told by Art Jetton’s former colleague, Bob McMahan, who worked with him at the sheriff’s office for 24 years and has a few more stories where those came from.
"Art was always working extra jobs and helping people, just an outgoing person," McMahan said, explaining Jetton’s popularity.
Several of the young "junior deputies" that Jetton mentored in Hall County schools went on to wear the badge.
Jetton led the Hall County Dive Team from its inception in 1979, and oversaw the recovery of more than 100 drowning victims from Lake Lanier before his retirement in 2003. More recently, he served as a campus police officer at Gainesville State College, where his frequent smile and penchant for giving folks nicknames won him some new admirers.
Jessica Jetton’s campaign to compile memories of her dad has gained momentum on the Internet, where a Facebook page providing regular updates of his condition, "Prayers for a Good Man," has more than 270 individual members. She’s received about 30 stories so far from a special e-mail account set up to collect memories of her dad: email@example.com.
"I don’t think 30 is enough," she said with a laugh. "I think there are more stories to be told. Some people say they can’t write, but I say just write it down. I think being in their own words is what would make the difference to my dad."
Like her father’s recovery, the project is long-term. She envisions a bound book, not a scrapbook, with photos accompanying text.
The project is meant to help her father, but it has also helped her.
"I’ve grown a lot closer to my dad because of this, and I think I really understand the impact he had on so many people," she said. "It’s been somewhat therapeutic for me."
Jessica Jetton said for her and her stepmother, Mary Helen, the story-compiling project "is something that gives us a ray of sunshine. Someone will send an e-mail with a story about my dad, and I’ll say ‘wow.’ Whatever the future holds, I’ll have this great collection of stories of my dad to share with others."